FOX NASCAR Insider
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — William Byron and Denny Hamlin lined up side-by-side on a restart with 30 laps remaining Sunday at Watkins Glen, and they both knew the driver who took the lead likely would win the race.
Byron took the lead. Byron won the race.
Capturing his fifth trophy of the season, the Hendrick Motorsports driver led 66 of the 90 laps on the day, a challenging-to-pass afternoon for drivers on the 2.45-mile road course.
“This place is becoming more and more track position over the last couple of years,” Byron said. “It’s really fast-paced and the setups keep getting better. We keep evolving.
“Guys don’t make a lot of mistakes. … I knew we had a great car in practice. We were really fast.”
Takeaways from an afternoon where the top-three drivers — Byron, Hamlin and Christopher Bell already had wins this year — while the drivers in fourth and fifth, AJ Allmendinger and Ty Gibbs, could have used a win to lock themselves into the playoffs.
Harvick, Keselowski Clinch
With Byron winning and just one regular-season race — Saturday night at Daytona – remaining, it means at least two spots (and possibly three spots) in the 16-driver playoff field will be based on points.
Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, both winless this year, clinched spots on points thanks to Byron’s win. Keselowski finished 15th Sunday while Harvick, in his final season, was 21st.
Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, missed the playoffs last year in his first season as a co-owner at RFK Racing. His teammate, Chris Buescher, has won two races this year and they sit sixth and seventh in the standings.
William Byron earns the checkered flag at Watkins Glen
“I felt like we were making progress this time last year and it just wasn’t as visible as it is here today,” Keselowski said. “To have our cars sixth and seventh in the points and you feel the progress and momentum building, it’s an exciting time for us at RFK.”
Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, obviously was looking for more out of the regular season.
“I wish we could have won a race before now, but we’ve had our opportunities to win a few of them,” Harvick said. “We’ve struggled on the road courses. Other than that, [the season] has been OK.”
Wallace in Good Position
Bubba Wallace finished 12th to put himself in a good position based on points as long as there is no new winner for the season at Daytona.
Wallace is 32 points ahead of Gibbs and 43 points ahead of Daniel Suarez, who spun early at the Glen and finished a disappointing 22nd.
Bubba Wallace talks about his outlook for next week’s race in Daytona
“We gained points, and thankful for the team … continuing to preach to me how good we actually are and how we don’t struggle as much as we think we do and giving me the right resources to get these good results,” Wallace said.
Chase Elliott brought out the only caution in the race when he ran out of gas in what appeared to be an issue of either how much gas or pickup there was in the reserve fuel tank, which teams use in case they run out of gas.
“That’s internal stuff,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “I’m not going to go over our internal struggles in the media, and I’m certainly not going to educate everybody else on the problem.”
Elliott, who has missed seven races this year (six because of injury, one because of suspension), faces a must-win situation at Daytona. He started 15th at Watkins Glen and although he had moved up to seventh, likely didn’t have a car to beat Byron so the team likely was playing a strategy game.
Chase Elliott says going to Daytona needing to win is like going to Vegas and needing to hit the jackpot
“To win, you have to have very little margin,” Gustafson said. “That’s what winning is — you’re going to make sure you exploit everything to the highest percentile possible.
“Any time you’re trying to push, you’re cutting margins. That gets riskier and riskier.”
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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